Tuesday, November 27, 2007
The Washington Post reports ongoing claims for reparation by the descendants of Jewish families who were expropriated - robbed - of their property by the Nazis. The Post story is about Germany, although there are similar claims, usually dealt with much less sympathetically, in Austria, Poland, France, even Switzerland, where the banks fenced Nazi loot during the war.
The Post story alludes to surviving slave workers in Nazi camps, now very elderly, who don't have enough to live on decently.
But the main focus of the story is a lawsuit by the descendants of property developers in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s, who were forced to sell out to the Nazis at a fraction of the worth of their land. The land was then mostly undeveloped, but it has been built up in the intervening decades.
"We have had the door slammed in our face and our history denied," said Peter Y. Sonnenthal, 53, a U.S. citizen and former attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Along with his sister, he has been fighting a legal battle since 1991 to reclaim hundreds of parcels of property that they say their Jewish ancestors sold under duress in the upscale Berlin suburb of Teltow.
I think such lawsuits are probably a bad idea. The people who live on this land now are not exactly innocent - "holders in due course", as lawyers say - since they may have known, or could have known, or perhaps should have known that the land was ultimately acquired by Nazi chicanery. But it all happened nearly 70 years ago. The books on financial restitution have to close sometime, at least for descendants of the Nazis' victims, especially in the case of later generations who have been able to build decent lives of their own in new countries.
I think the case is very different for surviving slave labourers - or concentration camp survivors - who are now old and in need.
And I have somewhat different feelings about countries other than Germany, which have not confronted what they did during the Nazi years, and have done little - and that grudgingly - to make any restitution at all. Austria comes to mind.
It seems to me that the Jewish people, as a people, have a claim on Germany, and on other European countries, for decent public and private respect for historical facts; and also for fundamental support for the State of Israel. This does not mean unquestioning support for any particular Israeli policy, although the glaring and often fervid hostility to the Jewish State in many European countries - again, not so much Germany - is transparently animated by something other, and far darker, than "disagreement with Israeli policy", whatever the Europeans might sometimes claim by way of ritual disclaimer.
But claims by descendants for land or art works or other property stolen in the 1930s and 1940s? Especially if these descendants are not living in hardship?
I tend to think that some award to these families would be the right thing. And a more substantial contribution to Jewish and other charities - perhaps to be agreed upon by the European government in question, the family, and the organised Jewish community. But not adversarial litigation and claims for full, private restitution. The moral statute of limitations is fast approaching for that, if it has not already run.
At least in Germany.
That is sort of what I think, anyway, except at moments when I think the opposite.